Foreign market finds: Culinary tourism, no plane ticket required

Image 1. Alex Petrovets, owner of EuroFood Imports, happily interprets the Cyrillic labels on many of his products for English-speaking customers.

Image 2. At Los Nenes bakery, select your spice from a wall covered in racks of dried chilies.

Image 3. Be sure to ask for the house-made kimchee at Kim’s Oriental Food and Gifts.

Image 4. Foreign Affairs has a large selection of fresh produce, including this durian, which reportedly smells like a dead body but tastes amazing.

Image 5. George Kroi, owner of Mediterranean Grocery, posed for this picture after a long journey back from New York, where he picks up some of the stores products himself.

Photos by Max Cooper

It’s January, and the holiday sugar plums that kept you company the past few months are probably gone. Thoughts of warmer climes and sunnier days fill their place. If your dreamed-of mid-winter vacation to Thailand, Greece, Mexico or the Philippines isn’t possible, there’s a way to get your getaway fix without leaving town.

Asheville is dotted with foreign markets that sell imported foods and specialty produce from Europe, China, Southeast Asia, India and Central and South America. Whether you’re looking for prepared goods or hard-to-find ingredients, import groceries offer a taste of faraway lands.

A little bit of Latvia

EuroFood Imports on Patton Avenue is packed with goods from Eastern Europe, Germany, Italy and Israel. From the parking lot (shared with Domino’s Pizza), the windows are so crowded that it's hard to determine precisely what the shop sells. But open the door, and a Cyrillic-blazoned rabbit hole awaits.

Owner Alex Petrovets chats with his customers in Russian across the deli counter, which is packed with smoked fish, sausage, bologna and cut-to-order smoked bacon. He estimates 80 percent of the patrons are immigrants, but he's happy to help Americans navigate the shop in which they are suddenly a minority. Petrovets moved to the U.S. from Latvia 20 years ago, but he says Asheville is home now. It reminds him of Latvia, he adds, but the weather is better.

Don't overlook the cultured butter amid the array of raviolis, perogies, spiced condiments, cakes and ice cream bars. It's popular throughout Europe but difficult to find in the U.S., although some natural foods grocery stores stock it. It adds an extra kick to buttered bread, and in baked goods, it contributes a sour subtlety that balances out sugar.

In the deli case, the smoked bacon comes in two different cuts (Hunter's bacon from the belly and Canadian-style from the loin). There's a multitude of sausages: Georgian-style kupati, German kiebasa, salami, chicken franks (linked together in old-school butcher style) and a couple of varieties of bologna. Cheeses hail from Lithuania, Russia, Latvia and Austria.

In the neighboring case, there are schools of whole smoked fish: salmon, paddle fish, gold trout, mackerel, herring and sprat. It's worth visiting the store just to ogle the deli cases, and if you're hoping to make an impressive cold cuts tray, you've come to the right place.

EuroFood Imports, 1483-B Patton Ave., opens Mondays from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sundays from 1 to 6:30 p.m. 252-9700.

Try tejocotes

At the intersection of Patton Avenue and Parkwood Road, Los Nenes Bakery stocks house-made cakes and pastries in addition to copious imports from Mexico and Central America.

While the fresh produce selection is somewhat limited (although it does include sugarcane), the preserved fruits and vegetables are various. Pacaya, loroco and izote are basically pickled flowers. In Central American cuisine, they're used fresh as herbs or vegetables in salads, sauces, rice dishes and fritters.

At Los Nenes, they're brined. If you're looking for a fresher flavor, give the flowers a couple of five-minute soaks in a bowl of water. For a straightforward way to prepare them (individually), try a frittata.

Los Nenes' freezers are filled with valuable finds. They hold only a small number of the many fruits grown in tropical climes, but they're a good place to begin an acquaintance with these delights. In addition to sugar cane, guava and tamarind, there are nanches, which are sometimes called yellow cherries even though they aren't actually cherries. They're usually eaten fresh or used in desserts and sweet sauces and fillings.

But the stars of the frozen foods section are the tejocotes, the fruit of the Mexican hawthorne, which is similar to a crab apple. The walnut-sized fruits are an important ingredient in ponche, a hot, spiced fruit drink that's common in Latin American homes during the holidays.

Los Nenes Bakery, 1341 Parkwood Ave., Unit 110, opens daily from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. 253-2086

Cephalopods and century eggs

Kim's Oriental Food and Gifts is the home cook's link to East and Southeast Asia, and is probably Asheville's best source for cephalopods. The freezers house whole baby octopi as well as pre-cooked, sliced tentacle meat. Octopus is a project for the patient cook, since it takes a while to become tender, but it's a worthy enterprise: Octopus is a central ingredient in Mediterranean and Asian cuisine.

Frozen and canned squid and dried cuttlefish round out the representatives of this many tentacled group. Kim's also sells several varieties of steamed fish cakes, including the recognizable pink-rimmed variety that brightens many ramen dishes, and dozens of small canned fish, including milk fish, mackerel, sardines, dace and red tilapia, as well as eel, squid and prawns.

One of the lower refrigerator shelves is stocked with house-made kimchee. Its presentation is nonchalant; its contents are brilliant. There are three different sizes of cabbage- and radish-based pickled goodness. Other pickled things of note include burdock, chilies and mangoes.

For an unfamiliar dish, check out the preserved duck eggs, otherwise known as hundred-year eggs, century eggs or pidan. Modern preparations involve brining and aging (for a matter of days, not years). The results yield soft, sulfurous and often black or brown in color. The eggs are commonly eaten in China and Taiwan atop tofu or in a porridge called congee.

Kim’s Oriental Food and Gifts, 5 Regent Park Blvd., opens Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. 254-7235

Dare to eat a durian

Foreign Affairs on Tunnel Road has the strongest lineup of fresh exotic fruit of any of Asheville's foreign markets. The Domingo family runs the shop, and they make weekly trips to Atlanta to get fresh products since, as matriarch Sharon Domingo laments, wholesale distributors of imported and specialty items are picky about what they deliver to Asheville.

One of Foreign Affairs' most popular items is the durian, a basketball-sized, spiky fruit that's notorious for its noxious odor and sweet, creamy flesh. Its smell is often compared to that of a dead body, but the flavor of its fruit is wildly popular in Southeast Asia. The Domingos know several techniques for subverting the scent, which they teach to their enthusiastic customers. Durian is popular among vegans because it's a good source of natural fats and amino acids.

Other hard-to-find fruits at Foreign Affairs include rambutan, lychees, dragonfruit and bitter melon. The shop also stocks pandan leaves — otherwise known as bai toei or screw pine — which lend their flavor to both rice dishes and desserts.

The Domingos have Philippino heritage, but they sell imports from a variety of regions. Among the Asian goods, there you’ll find Jamaican and Middle Eastern ingredients. The selection of Indian goods is particularly strong. The store sells rose water, screw pine water and orange blossom water, all floral flavorings used in Indian cuisine. For the aspiring yet timid Indian cook, they stock a wide array of Patak's brand sauces, a company based in England that makes Indian chutneys, simmer sauces such as curries, and pickles. British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver even recommends the brand.

Foreign Affairs Oriental Market, 611 Tunnel Road, opens Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. 299-0333.

Seek the Greek

In south Asheville, the recently opened Mediterranean Grocery stocks imports from Greece and Italy. George Kroi owns the business with his wife, Ida Kroi. George also owns GK Construction services. The Krois come from Albania, which is just north of Greece and across the Adriatic Sea from southern Italy. Those countries have a big influence on Albania's food, he says.

Mediterranean Grocery stocks an assortment of Greek pasta, pita bread, biscuits, cookies, preserves, olive oil and coffee. The cheese section is vast and impressive: there's a whole case devoted to different varieties of feta. Many of the Greek and Bulgarian cheeses are made from sheep's milk, which produces a milder taste than goat's milk. Cheeses include kasseri, vlahotiri and kashkaval.

Don't overlook the halvas tucked in next to the cheese. George promises that children will love this sesame-seed-paste confection. Another crowd pleaser: spinach pies. The frozen pastries are the size and shape of a pizza. They're similar to a giant spanikopita with a flaky, filo outside and a spinach and feta filling.

George is still working on stocking the shelves. The store has only been open a few weeks. For some items, he personally makes trips to New York. The inventory is a work in progress, George says, but already, there are plenty of items to delight the Greek cook and the culinary tourist.

Mediterranean Grocery is located at 1987 Hendersonville Road in the same shopping center as Stonebowl Korean. It opens Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 6 p.m. For more information, visit the Facebook page.

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